February 16

Bug hotels and hovels – Six on Saturday

I have a number of bug hotels and hovels built specifically for insects and slugs and snails to hide in on the wildlife plot. Without these we wouldn’t get the frogs and toads, slow worms and birds as the food web or chain won’t be complete.

First of all we have the Hilton of bug hotels. I didn’t build this one – The Wildlife Trust did – and it has everything in it with a waterproof roof. This type of shelter can be a hotel for anything from hedgehogs to toads, solitary bees to bumblebees, and ladybirds to woodlice. I don’t like to ferret around in it so I don’t know what is in there apart from woodlice – lots of them! This just needs an occasional top up of materials and possibly rebuilding every few years. It is certainly a feature of the plot. The RSPB has a good set of instructions for creating one of these.

The flowerpot people are also bug hotels – more like Premier Inns than the Hilton – and suit slugs and snails. They are near the pond so that there is a food source for frogs and toads and slow worms in the summer when they are in the sun. They are extremely easy to build, no instructions needed and have grasses or pinks in the top pot as hair.

The next inn was made from a rusty plant support and a bit of netting stuffed with teasel heads and pine cones. I wrapped the netting inside the support and then stuffed the teasel heads down to the narrow end and then filled it up with the cones. To keep it all inside I placed a piece of the netting over the legs of the support and slid it up. Birds may well have a look at the teasels so I have stuck some outside the support as well making it look a bit peculiar. This is now sited in the taller end of the rubble wall that snakes through The Thugs Bed.

Someone left a Bee Brick on the bench for me. I looked them up and they need to be about 1m off the ground so built up a brick tower to sit it on, facing south. From everything I have read about solitary bees, you really need to clean out the tubes so I am not sure how well this will work but will give it a go.

Then we have the rubble pile on the Brownfield Site Bed. This has logs, stones, dried grasses, water pipes leading in for solitary bees to go down and through, corrugated iron and then broken bricks on top. This is designed for a range of creatures and it will be interesting to see what uses it. This idea comes from John Little and shows how brownfield sites can be rich areas for insects and invertebrates meaning that building rubble does not have to be removed just shaped and repurposed appropriately saving a lot of waste.

As the weather warms up, this bed will be planted with yellow and white wildflowers or weeds depending on your point of view.

All this bed needs now is the mound of sand. I will use builders sand as part of the waste materials on a building site and it will be south-facing and specifically for solitary bees. It will be interesting to see what happens, if anything.

The next two bed and breakfast rooms are similar but look very different. They are the wall built out of waste building materials (not unlike the pile above) which offers lots of nooks and crannies and a stone filled gabion (quite small) with lots of gaps between the stones and warm enough in the sun to bask on. The gabion will have soil pockets put in and then plants popped in. I have a daisy, Erigeron karvinsianus, that someone has donated and no doubt I will never be without it after this.

On order is a solitary bee hotel with a viewing panel which will be fixed to a pole about a metre off the ground. You will be able to take the side off and look into the chambers to see what the bees are doing. This is mainly for the schools that visit the site but I suspect we will all be interested in it.

Have you got any bug hotels?

This post is linked to the #SIXONSATURDAY blog posts hosted by The Propagator

February 7

Harvest Monday 07/02/22

We have had a strange winter here on the south coast. Very little wind, evident from the fact that we have not had the sand blown off the beach and along the road at all this year, and little rain. That is not to say, however, that we haven’t had storms with a lot of wind and rain in one heavy drop. I do wonder if this is the future.

The downside of this is that the weather has been grey. Dreary and grey. The upside is that I have been able to do quite a bit of work outside in December and January. We had an official complaint about rats which is tricky as we border houses and have had to re-organise our plots to ensure that it isn’t us providing the perfect conditions for them. It turned out it wasn’t but we have all had to move our compost bins and other detritus from the bottom of our plots and store it elsewhere. I found carpet under the soil, a burial pit of plastic bags, many, many tree and bramble roots plus all my poles and wood. I also had to move 5 large compost bins most of which were ready to use and that has been strenuous but warming work.

From the store we have been pulling out potatoes – we’re still eating Charlotte – and carrots which are a mixture of Autumn King and Oxheart. We are also valiently working our way through a Queensland Blue squash that is delicious with a firm flesh but is quite large and has lasted for about 3 weeks already. Memo to self – eat more squash!

From the plot we have Brussel sprouts and Kalettes, Parsnips (Tender and True), lettuce (Rouge Grenoble), lambs lettuce (Vit) rainbow chard, Boltardy and Bona beetroot and fennel from the tunnel.

Over-wintered red admiral which came in to the kitchen on the vegetables.

When I brought the veg in yesterday, a Red Admiral came in with them. Its wings look a little tatty at the edges, particularly the bottom so I think it must have over-wintered here as it is not really the right time for the migrating ones to arrive. Apparently, down here in the south that is happening more and more.

I put it outside but with a fairly heavy heart as it really wasn’t warm enough.

It is the first year that I have almost grown enough sprouts! I had 8 plants which I started picking at the beginning of December and still have a few left to go. I think 12 plants next year would be fantastic and I won’t have to ration them! They were of a good size probably because I grew F1 varieties – Crispus and Brodie – rather than open-pollinated which seem to be a lot more variable. I have been trying to grow more OP vegetables but sometimes F!s are better. Food is becoming a lot more expensive here for a variety of reasons so getting the best crops is more important.

I’m off to finish the bug pit on the wildlife plot before seed sowing starts in earnest. Have a good week.

I have linked to Harvest Monday on the Happy Acres blog. Do visit to see what else is being harvested around the world.

February 6

Log piles I have built

Log piles are a really important part of a wildlife garden for a variety of reasons.

  • They provide shelter and a habitat for many insects, beetles, birds and reptiles.
  • As the wood rots down, it creates space to put more on top so offering a way of getting rid of twigs, branches, trunks and everything in between.
  • They can sit quietly where no one notices or they can be a designed feature of the garden – they can be large or small.

Here are a selection that we have on the wildlife plot – all built slightly differently.

My first log pile is a dead hedge or what some people call a brash pile. I have used metal rods to provide a support to contain the branches and then laid them reasonably neatly along the length of the supports. I intend to increase the length of this dead hedge with hazel supports to provide a boundary between the plot and my garden neighbour. Dead hedges do not have to follow a straight line but can weave and snake around. On the plot ivy is starting to grow through and over it, providing even more shelter for whoever uses it. The whippy growths at the front of it are elm roots running and sprouting as the dead elms are cut down. There are some nice examples of dead hedging here.

The second log pile is probably what most people think of as a log pile. This one consists of trees cut down and then stacked in situ. We had to cut several cherries and dead elms down just to open up the site a little and to prevent too many of one particular thing taking over. Someone will use the bigger chunks as firewood eventually but here they sit, providing shelter for now. You can make excellent decorative piles with logs such as those created by Nigel Dunnett in what he calls wave form log piles. They look stunning when the plants are in flower and as they die down. I think for those structures, the logs are better if all cut to the same length, spread out and then you can choose which ones to put on the base and make use of the smaller and smaller branches as you go build up.

Next up is a log pile that was already on the plot when I started to work on it. This is in a shady corner and made out of awkward shaped bits of branches usually with 2 or 3 smaller branches coming off them. This is a good place to put the knobbly bits. The pile has been here long enough for dead nettle and harebells to grow through and around it. It is at the bottom of the bed near the pond and I do wonder who uses it – are the newts sheltered in there? I have seen a toad sitting in there a couple of years ago.

This is my latest log pile. It is in the Brownfield Site bed and rather than lay the logs down on their side, I have stood them up on end. I dug a pit about 30 – 40 cms deep and then buried the logs in it. This log pile is in full sun so will be used more by insects and others that like to bask. The stones at the base also provide a basking site so we will see who visits when we get a bit of sunshine.

I have also gone one step further in other parts of the wildlife plot and planted dead trees. They have peeling bark, some have woodworm and other creatures who have already attacked them but dead wood is dead wood and they will crumble and rot away just like a wood pile. They may also, however, offer perching places for birds. The tree I have planted are from dead elder and a Euonymus europaeus that blew down in storm Arwin.

And, finally the last wood pile was already on the plot so I didn’t build it. Leave a tree trunk of a tree that you no longer need. It will rot and decay and bits will fall off creating quite a nice pile at the base. This is a fascinating process to watch. There are all sorts of woodlice and spiders living in the peeling bark and something is very neatly shredding the top of the trunk. It would make a good study and one I might do later on in the year just to see who is using it. @grassroofco uses trees in this way.

Have you got any log piles? Who or what uses them?

You can see posts two, three and four in the log pile series here.

January 28

If you build it, they will come part 3

Common plume moth

The Brownfield Site bed has now been emptied. It had about 8 Hylotelephium, probably Autumn Joy, in it which insects love. In late Summer it was covered in bees, hoverflies and wasps and if I could only have 5 plants for insects this is one that I would choose to keep. The other 4 would be Skimmia japonica, Cotoneaster horizontalis, Echium vulgare and Solidago. This meant that I didn’t want to get rid of them, just divide and move them so now we have them grouped all over the garden in the Thugs Bed and there is plenty to give away to the rest of the allotment site. You can read part 1 and part 2 of this series to find out what my ultimate aim is.

Whilst I was working on the hylotelephia (is that how you do the plural?), I disturbed a common plume moth. I have seen them before on the site and they are quite distinctive with those small wings. They look a bit like a miniature stick insect.

Log pile on the Brownfield Site bed

The first thing I wanted to build was a log pile on end. I only needed 4 or 5 fairly sturdy logs which I have after we had some tree cutting on the site last spring. I dug a round hole, stood them on end and then moved the soil back to bury them.

The log at the back had been lying down on the bed for a couple of years I would say, so I stood that up as well because it will have a lot of the sort of life that we want in it already and it will mean that the wildlife we want in this area is already here.

At the bottom of the picture you might just be able to see some stones and concrete rubble. I am making a river of these from the log pile to the edge of the bed, which is south facing, so that invertebrates now have 3 types of habitat in close proximity – wood pile to live in, stones to live under and to bask on in the sun and some bits of bare soil around them. This is all part of building the structural complexity and diversity that invertebrates need. Round, water-shaped stones are something we have a lot of in our soil so it shouldn’t take me too long to complete that part.

The plants in this bed are all going to be yellow and white so I have a Libertia grandiflora to plant behind the pile – in my garden they are in almost full-time shade and at the side a bushy honeysuckle I nipped a cutting off on my morning walk. The flowers are yellow and white and heavily scented so will be delicious. I am planting it in the shade of the logs and hope that it is not too sunny for it. If it is, I will move it.

It is a start. What projects are you working on?

January 27

If you build it, they will come part2

Canvey Wick in Essex

Brownfield sites have become a lot more important recently. They are sites where there has been human disturbance, can have old buildings, piles of rubble, uneven ground and many different habitats relatively close to each other. Canvey Wick in Essex is a prime example, situated along the Thames and built to process petroleum but shut down before it ever opened. It is now a Site of Special Interest because it has such an enormous biodiversity and is referred to as a ‘brownfield rainforest’ – rainforests being some of the most biodiverse areas in the world. Often, these places have drought-stressed, nutrient poor soils which can be contaminated but they are ideal for not letting any one species of plant become dominant. They often have bare ground which enables invertebrates to warm up quickly in the sunshine. They can often have slopes and different types of soil, some of which may be compacted. All of this offers a refuge to invertebrates who often need two different types of habitat to complete their life cycle.

And why is this so important?

‘If we and the rest of the back-boned animals were to disappear overnight, the rest of the world would get on pretty well. But if the invertebrates were to disappear, the world’s ecosystems would collapse.’ 

Sir David Attenborough

I have an empty bed on the wildlife plot which I haven’t really known what to do with it. Last year I put a planted wheelbarrow on it but that won’t do this year. So, we are clearing it and going to make it into a more varied landscape for invertebrates. The soil is quite poor – no compost has been added for some years now so that is a good start and it has a slight slope on it. I am going to put a path through it that doesn’t have wood chippings on it just to vary the soil – it will just be compacted soil.

Mound of various materials covered in brick rubble from John Little’s, @grassroofco, garden.

To change the topography (to put it another way, to add some hills) I am going to build mounds like the one in the picture. This is a large circle edged in steel with soil dug out. In the bottom is logs and then grasses, twigs, water piping, corrugated iron all covered over with brick rubble. This is specifically built for any and all types of invertebrate. Another mound will be fine sand – probably at the front of the bed to soak up the sunshine as it is south-west facing, and the third one will have logs on their ends built into the soil at different heights with stones cascading down from it to the south. This will create what is called an open mosaic habitat. In between the mounds I will plant verbascums, cow parsley, fennel, poppies and other plants that I can find but with bare soil visible like brownfield sites have. The bed can then be called The Brownfield Site as each of the beds has a name!

I’ll post pictures as we create the bed. You can see part 1 and part 3 of this series here.

January 22

If you build it, they will come: part 1

There is a fantastic video from Grassroofco, ostensibly about different substrates for growing particularly on brownfield sites and in urban areas, but I loved his images. I found his message loud and clear: structural complexity and diversity is one of the most important elements for biodiversity. We have quite a lot of different habitats on the wildlife plot but we can always fit in more so here are some of the ideas that I have taken from the video.

My first idea is to build a dry rubble wall that snakes through the Thugs Bed. I did start to build it at the front of the bed but then had a nightmare about children falling on it and cutting themselves open – easily done as it has sharp edges. So, after much thought I have moved it into the bed where it will probably be much more suited to the bugs. The bed faces south so the wall should warm up in the sun and critters can sun themselves on it. It’s not really warm enough at the moment but it will be.

This picture shows the first part and because it is made of different materials, it should provide a greater diversity of materials in the garden and therefore niches.

This is only about a quarter of the finished length but we are working hard to remove some of the Vinca major to allow other plants a chance. If we find that it is not high enough in summer once the plants have grown, I can make changes to it to increase the height.

Read part 2 and part 3 here.

January 10

Trialling seed containers

Rocket seedlings in Containerwise seed tray.

Judging by the posts I see on allotment and vegetable growing Facebook posts, we are all trying to reduce our use of plastic, me included. However, there are some things that are just best made in plastic, what you don’t want is for it to be one-off plastic.

I have tried many types of seed sowing trays, containers and pots over the years. I have root trainers which I find very useful for cuttings, sweet peas and broad beans but they are very flimsy and most have broken. Two years ago, I found Containerwise through Charles Dowding and bought some of their seed sowing modules. I don’t use the size CD uses but one size bigger. They are fantastic, made out of rigid plastic and said to last 10 years although I think they will probably last longer.

When I was looking for a replacement for the root trainers, I found these deep propagation trays  and these. I am going to get 1 of each to try them out this year and see what works best for my needs. I am also going to try these rubber root trainers that are supposed to last a life time.

I am also going to try these silicone seed modules that look and feel just like my silicone baking trays. They are reputed to last a life time and it is supposed to be easy to get the seedling out of the tray.

The downside might be that they are a bit floppy to carry on their own so will need a tray underneath them and they are more a transplanting rather than seed sowing size.

What do you use?

January 8

7 top tips for organising vegetable growing this year

Christmas decoration in the pond.

A Happy New Year to everyone.

I can always tell when I have too much time thanks to the rain because I try and organise myself and the coming vegetable year. I am doing this even though I have not yet got my broad bean seeds in yet. Oh dear! Anyway, there is a reason for that – my greenhouse is full of loft insulation and I can’t get in to it to do anything. So, here are my top tips which I am going to do this year:

  1. Plan how many plants I need of each sort, roughly. This year I have almost been self-sufficient in sprouts. I haven’t bought any yet and probably won’t need to until the end of February. On the other hand, I didn’t grow anywhere near enough celariac. So, I’m creating a spreadsheet where I put down when I want to eat the veg – I don’t want to eat leeks all year round – and therefore how many plants I need. You can see it here.
  2. I am not that fussed about rotating plants around the plots. I try not to grow the same plant in the same place two years running but I have done it with no loss of productivity. However, I do forget which sort of compost I have put on each bed and I would like to know because I vary my compost probably more than I do my vegetables. I put 7-10 cm of compost at the start of each year and occasionally a bit more later on in the year. I don’t dig but I do grow on sand and so it needs a lot of oomph. I’ve drawn up a rough plan of the plots and recorded on each one the year and the type of compost and pin it up in the shed in a plastic wallet so that I can always access it. I have 5 different composts that I make and 1 that I buy but I will talk about how I use them in a different post.
  3. I have been dabbling with sowing seeds according to the moon phases – biodynamic gardening – but usually lose the plot in April when there is so much to do. This year I have bought the Maria Thun diary so that I can know exactly when to sow the seeds. Does it work? I don’t know but in soil like mine you need every little bit of help you can get. I have looked at my spreadsheet of plants that I want to grow and written into the diary when I should sow them.
  4. With two plots I have quite a lot of growing space but there are times in the year when I could do with a bit more. So this year I need to try intersowing which is where you plant young plants amongst others so that when they are finished the next crop is in and ready to take off with the increased space and light. I am thinking particularly of brassicas here because we eat a lot in winter and they take up a lot of space. The lettuces seem the most obvious crop to interplant because we pick leaves off them regularly so they have spaces in between the plants.
  5. I make nettle tea and comfrey tea and have worm juice from the vermicomposting but there are a whole lot of other teas and feeds that can be made for the garden including ferments. I have bought some chamomile and yarrow seeds because biodynamic gardening uses the flowers to create specific teas for the garden and to add to the compost heaps. Chamomile supports the recycling of materials and yarrow helps connect the plant to its environment and make it adaptable to the changes. Both are going in my compost heaps as an addition.
  6. I am the sort of grower that hates spending time in the kitchen preserving, freezing and any other -ing the food that I have grown. Who wants to make tomato sauce in the hottest time of the year? Not me. If I can chuck it in the freezer with no prep I am happy. I do this with tomatoes (I cut them up if they are enormous), berries, chillies, broad beans, peas and sweetcorn (sliced off the cob) but the rest of the time I prefer to pick and eat. Steve of Steve’s seaside allotment is working on this and is writing about it in his free ebook  so I am going to read and implement his ideas.
  7. And finally, reading, reading, reading. You get the best new ideas from reading books, blogs, youtube channels and anything else you can get your hands on as well as talking to fellow allotment holders.

What do you do to keep yourself on track?

December 31

Changing my mind about ragwort

Cinnabar moth July 21

I have always pulled ragwort up off my allotment but reading Wilding by Isabella Tree made me think about what I do. What stopped me in my tracts was the fact that 177 species of insect use common ragwort as a source of nectar or pollen. That’s quite a lot on a small plot!

 

Seven species of beetle, twelve species of flies, one macromoth – the cinnabar, with its distinctive black-red-and-yellow rugby jersey caterpillars – and seven micromoths feed exclusively on common ragwort. It is a major source of nectar for at least thirty species of solitary bees, eighteen species of solitary wasps and fifty insect parasites. (Tree, 2018, p142)

I know ragwort can be toxic to horses especially and cattle but apparently they only eat it if they are in an over-grazed field where there is not enough grass for them. There are other plants that can have the same toxic effect on them: foxgloves, elder, spindle and daffodil all of which I have on the plot (although I have no horses or cattle!) and no one bats an eyelid about them.

The seed can stay dormant in the soil for about 10 years and only needs a slight scratching around it to stimulate germination which would explain how I come to have it each year on my plot and the wildlife plot. This year, however, I am going to let it grow on the wildlife plot.

And if you want more information about micromoths, this site is useful.

 

December 24

Wilding by Isabella Tree

A volunteer who works with me on the wildlife plot suggested I read Wilding: The return of nature to a British farm by Isabella Tree. I hadn’t heard of this book but it was highly commended by the 2019  Wainwright Book Prize and so there is no time like the present to get started on it.

It is a fantastic story about wilding the Knepp Estate,  a mixed farm, which through grants and lack of money became the most amazing return to nature with a little help from the owners. The one thing the book does really well is show the inter-connectedness of everything. So, rather than write the normal sort of review, I am going to record some of the elements which were new to me or amazed me.

  • I didn’t know about the relationship between oak trees and jays. Jays eat acorns but also store them. They peck and push them far down into the soil – in fact to the very distance that is most propitious for an acorn to sprout. During the summer months they leave the acorns as there is plenty of other food but then eventually return. By now the acorn has sprouted so the jay pulls it up just enough to get to the cotyledon leaves which remain underground. Because the oak sends down strong roots very early in its life, it is often strong enough to withstand this attack and will carry on growing. If that isn’t enough, the jay will bury the acorns at the edge of scrub plants and these continue to grow and eventually provide a thorny tree guard for the oak, preventing cows, deer and other grazing animals getting to it. So, not only does the jay get a carbohydrate rich food, but it plants the seeds from which the next oaks will grow. In a four week period a jay can bury about 7,500 acorns. Why aren’t we allowing jays to do this for us instead of recruiting hundreds of volunteers to plant trees that need plastic guards?
  • By not using herbcides, pesticides and any other cide on the farm the number and type of dung beetles increased dramatically. In fact the owners timed how long it took for beetles to arrive at a newly deposited pile of dung and it was three minutes. Using wormers and paratiscides on cattle kills the dung beetles or any other insect that eats the dung. Because dung beetles tunnel, this has an impact on the quality of the soil reducing the aeration, fertility and ability to soak up water. But even better, the dung beetles reduce the parasites in the dung by eating it up quickly and therefore reduce the amount of wormers needed. And of course, if you use wormers, it reduces the beetles and other insects which then has an effect on the birds and so on up through the food chain.
  • Honeysuckle provides nesting material for doormice. I didn’t know that and we don’t really have any, honeysuckle or doormice, on the wildlife plot so need to take some cuttings and grow some if only for the scent.
  • Credit – Getty images

    What comes through loud and clear in the book is something Tree refers to as ‘species-shifting syndrome’ as exemplified by nightingales and purple emperor butterflies. Nightingales are often referred to as a woodland species but left to their own devices at Knepp, the nightingales have nested in wide, prickly hedges and open-grown scrub both of which are rich in insects, not woodland. Could it be that they are seen in coppiced woodland because they are clinging on to a habitat that is present, not their preferred but the least worst thing. Time and again, Tree says that if you look in wildlife guides over a 100 years ago the range and type of habitat described in them is different to the modern guides. If we take the modern guides at face value we would be planting lots of coppiced woodlands to encourage nightingales but it wouldn’t. They cling on to these as a last hope not actively choosing them as their preferred habitat. She demonstrates the same with the butterflies and suspects the same thing with collared doves.

  • If you want to increase biodiversity allow herbivores on the land. They create a biodiverse ecosystem from a blank slate – just one species will do but if you have more then there will be an even bigger effect. One example given in the book is in Nigeria where cattle grazed with donkey’s put on 60% more weight because the donkeys graze the tough, upper portion of the grass revealing more delicate parts for cows. This also happens slightly closer to home on Dartmoor where the wild ponies eat what they like, leaving close cropped grass for other herbivores such as free-roaming cattle and sheep. What they leave behind is ideal habitat for marsh fritillary butterflies.
  • Islands of wilding are not enough. We need corridors and more, bigger and better sites.

This is such a fantastic book, jam-packed full of interesting, slowly evolving rewilding observations. The big take away from it is that nature does it best; not the big, well-known conservation groups although they have all done other good things. It is their lack of ability to take risks and to be at the forefront of different ways of working that is quite frustrating.

All I can say is the winning book of the Wainwright prize in 2018 must have been excellent.